Streaming Quadruple Feature: Mulan, Boys State, The Devil All the Time, & Enola Holmes

Mulan – Disney+

This live-action remake of the animated classic from 1998 follows the same formula of “reinvention” as the other live-action remakes (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, etc.). This includes making a poorer version of (or cutting out entirely) the musical numbers, a half-hearted attempt at retconning the things that were critiqued in the original while getting a whole host of new problems, making the female protagonists more “empowered” with a new Girl Boss paint job, and just overall becoming a duller film. 

This new Mulan isn’t a complete waste of time, though. The movie infuses some classic wuxia/ fantasy martial arts styling here that not only pays tribute to Chinese cinema, but makes this Mulan retelling feel more like a myth, which gets back at the story’s roots as folklore. The sets and costumes are beautiful. Mulan is given a sister who, while extremely underdeveloped, chooses a more traditionally feminine route and isn’t shamed for it, driving home the message that just because Mulan bucked traditional roles doesn’t mean she or her path is better, it just means feminism is about widening women’s choices. 

This live-action remake simply just does not use its new format to be the cool war movie we wanted (although Mulan herself does have a surprisingly high body count), and it’s hard to overcome that disappointment and not compare it to the original. But I do have to say this: I watched this with one of my best friends, who is Chinese-American (was born and raised in China until she immigrated to the US). While she had some problems with the depiction of China, she spoke to me at length about how good it made her feel to see a girl like her on-screen, in her home country, with such a powerful story. That’s not something I take lightly. Representation matters, even if there are some missteps or missed opportunities while striving for it. 

Boys State – Apple TV+

This documentary follows the 2019 Texas Boys State, an annual convention where boys (there’s a separate Girls State) from across the state are chosen to participate in an educational week where they form political parties and hold elections to learn about democracy. 

Personally, this is one of the most stressful environments I could ever imagine being in, and the documentary is at its best when it is able to catch a glimpse of the true wariness and vulnerability of the subjects. Sometimes the self-awareness of the documentary is a little too noticeable, like you can tell when the filmmakers are thinking, “This is going to draw a parallel to the 2016 election! We’re telling an important story here that reveals the declining state of American politics!” But, despite the self-awareness sometimes getting in the way, it’s true- there are parallels to both the 2016 election but also to all sorts of political discourses we continue to have about tribalism, slander, fake news, the values of a trained politician vs. a non-politician “draining the swamp,” and the intersections of race, class, and gender.

So like the discourse around those topics, the film can feel just as tiring, emotional, cyclical, and repetitive, and, at least to me, discouraging. Yet it’s insightful, and there are kids to root for, and entertaining, so I certainly recommend watching it. But, Boys State also reminds you that nothing is new under the sun, and politics and policies are not the ultimate avenue for change we should put our hopes in. 

The Devil All The Time – Netflix

The Devil All the Time, based on the book of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock (who narrates the film), has the midwest gothic aesthetic down to a T. Haunting landscape? Check. Evil religion and charismatic, wicked preachers? Check. Flat, midwest landscapes that grow more sinister as the sun goes down? Tortured women cast in a soft glow? Check and check. 

Atmosphere and aesthetics can only go so far, though, and unfortunately The Devil All The Time doesn’t have anything deeper to offer. Everyone in the all-star cast is game, but there is only so much that nice cinematography, shocking plot twists, and star power can give a movie. It can’t sustain it. The whole film ends up feeling bloated, repetitive, and less serious and important than it thinks it is. I agree with Justin Chang for NPR when he writes, “I also found the movie ultimately repetitive in its grisliness, and simplistic in some of the ways that it accuses religion of being.” Now I am fascinated by movies about religion and the way it can be corrupted, and complicated ministers. But, The Devil All The Time’s depiction of small-town faith is so repetitive and cartoonish that it never tries to dig below the surface as to why religion can breed such vileness and destructive patterns. The movie is similarly uninterested in digging deeper into the depictions of generational trauma and violence. We get it- evil is mundane. But why? The Devil shrugs. 

Enola Holmes – Netflix

Enola Holmes is mostly a star vehicle for Millie Bobby Brown (who also produces here), and it works- she’s truly a movie star. Charismatic, expressive, and immensely talented, she carries the movie effortlessly. She has some nice help from Louis Partridge, and some star power backup from the most uncharitable and unlikeable portrayals of Sherlock (a dull Henry Cavill) and Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) I’ve ever seen- and I’ve watched Sherlock! So like Enola Holmes herself, Brown is mostly on her own as she goes from one unexpectedly brutal action scene to the next, offering a promising career in action for Brown if she wants to go down the Milla Jovovich or Charlize Theron route.  

Enola Holmes reminded me, more than anything else, of an American Girl Doll movie. Remember those movies, with the likes of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (a formative influence on me)? Unlike those movies, with sweet early-2000s optimism, this 2020 Enola Holmes has a little more bite, with rough action, some political commentary (don’t interrogate that too much), and a historical narrative jazzed up with modern features. But, while the film feels episodic (like a future Netflix streaming series???) it’s still charming and doesn’t feel like a television movie, but like big-screen fare, which we’re all a little desperate for. 

-Madeleine D.

My Strange and Magical Odyssey Through the Work of Aaron Paul

During my city’s stay-at-home order in March and April, I finally got around to watching AMC’s iconic Breaking Bad series, and later, its prequel spinoff Better Call Saul. I quickly fell in love with both shows, but especially Breaking Bad. I loved the writing and directing, the twists and turns, and the complicated characters. My favorite character, far and away, was Jesse Pinkman- junkie dealer turned tortured soul.

When I finished the show, I experienced post-show depression. Also, we were in a pandemic. To combat this sadness, I decided to chase the “high” of Breaking Bad by watching a few of the movies of Jesse Pinkman’s actor Aaron Paul. 

And then I kept watching. Once I had watched a few movies, I decided I was too far in and committed fully to going through his filmography. Now, I have watched two full TV shows (BoJack Horseman, The Truth Be Told) and almost every single movie from Aaron Paul’s post-Breaking Bad career (the exceptions being Welcome Home, Central Intelligence, and Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV). As a newly certified Aaron Paul academic, I am compelled to share my findings with you. 

This essay will examine Paul’s filmography after 2013. We will examine the trajectory of his career and the underlying themes of the roles he has played and how they have responded to Hollywood trends, and we’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of his projects. 

~

It is an infamous Hollywood sentiment that most actors cannot make the jump from television to film. Only a few have been able to do it successfully and reach movie star level. While the era of prestige television has brought many stars to the small screen, it is still difficult to do the reverse. 

But if anyone would be able to do it, it should have been Aaron Paul. With the end of critically acclaimed Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season in September of 2013, Paul entered 2014 with five movies released in U.S theaters, all wildly different. The reactions to these five films set the course for the rest of his career.

Timeline

  • Breaking Bad ends in September 2013. 

  • Hellion (dir. Kat Candler) premieres at Sundance on January 17th, 2014, and gets a wide release in June. It’s an indie that doesn’t make much money, but Paul gets good reviews for his performance as an alcoholic widower struggling to keep custody of his sons. The film receives mixed to positive reviews. Hellion doesn’t quite come together as a whole but has a lot of strong elements. The film observes its characters without moralizing, full of empathy for their plights, no matter how frustrating it is to watch them self-sabotage. It’s an emotionally wrenching portrait of grief ripping a family apart. (I give it 4 out of 5 stars). 

  • Need for Speed (dir. Scott Waugh) comes out March 14th. This is obviously supposed to be Paul’s “leading man” action blockbuster debut. It’s panned by critics and makes decent box office, but not enough to get a sequel. The only thing about the film that lives in the cultural lexicon is this meme:

    So it was all worth it in the end. Paul is completely miscast as the lead here, which is probably why he’ll never be trusted with a franchise again. Lead characters in action movies are usually proactive and initiate within the story to drive the plot. Paul is great at reacting, which makes him a poor fit with a movie like this, which asks him to mostly sit and glower in front of a wheel. As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune put it, “Paul has talent, though the actor’s idea of simmering intensity in the context of Need for Speed comes off more like serial killer in the making.'” Yikes. (1/5 stars)

  • Decoding Annie Parker (dir. Steven Bernstein) has a U.S theatrical release on May 2nd. It is a small drama that doesn’t get much publicity or box office, and it receives mixed to negative reviews. Paul’s character here is- and I mean this as respectfully as possible- a himbo. A himbohusand, until halfway through the film when his character does a complete 180. He wears a delightful array of terrible wigs that do a lot of the heavy lifting. The movie never figures out what story it wants to tell about the real-life Annie Parker and her contributions to breast cancer research, botching what could have been a moving story. But Paul’s relatively small role is entertaining, and much more so if you track his character’s moral decay by the shortening of his hair. (2/5)

  • A Long Way Down (dir. Pascal Chaumeil) gets a long, windy European rollout but eventually hits the United States in limited release on June 5th. It’s also a small film that doesn’t get a lot of attention or box office returns. Those who see it give it negative reviews. Paul plays a depressed ex-musician who tries to commit suicide on News Years Eve, but, surprise! three other people (played by Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collet, and Imogene Poots) are on the roof as well. The four of them make a pact to stay alive until Valentine’s Day and in the process become a little family. The movie is a tonally uneven “dark comedy” that refuses to sit in any kind of grief or sorrow. It’s not well written, and, as Mike D’Angelo notes for the AV Club, “Brosnan and Poots clearly believe A Long Way Down is a comedy…while Collette and Paul are convinced it’s a deadly serious portrait of despair.” But, admittedly, this movie is my kind of trash. It has plenty of tropes I hate, like “Go on vacation to find meaning in life again.” But it also has tropes I do like, such as “on the nose power ballad,” and “angstily swims in the ocean as a form of spiritual baptism” and “Aaron Paul crying,” which, in this case, are all the same scene. (3/5)

  • The 66th Primetime Emmys are on August 25th. Breaking Bad wins big, and Paul takes home his third Emmy win for best-supporting actor.

  • Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott) is released on December 12th. The movie is a box office failure and gets slammed with terrible reviews, as it deserves.(1/5)

Here is, apparently, what Aaron Paul learned from this appetizer-year of roles:

  1. I will never do a big blockbuster again, and my only leading man roles will be in B-level action flicks. (Whether this was a decision Paul came to on his own or was just what Hollywood decided post-Need for Speed, we’ll never know).
  2. I can continue to play boyfriends & husbands in supporting roles for mid-budget movies (Fathers and Daughters, American Woman, Decoding Annie Parker). 
  3. I will never ever do a period piece ala Exodus again, but I WILL work with a Scott again (he works with Ridley Scott for Exodus, works with Ridley Scott’s son Jake Scott in his 2019 film American Woman). 
  4. I will continue to play Troubled Fathers™ in indie movies (The Parts You Lose, Hellion, The 9th Life of Louis Drax)
  5. TV is my real home (BoJack Horseman, The Path, The Truth Be Told, Westworld)

So what did Aaron Paul’s career look like after 2014? Let’s go through each movie and see. The following movies are in chronological order by U.S theatrical release date.

Eye in the Sky (2016) 4/5 – This well-crafted drama explores drone warfare in a way that presents probably a more idealized version of how modern war is conducted than an accurate one. Putting realism aside, however, the film does what it set out to accomplish, which is to make the audience think about the ethics of this new frontier of combat. Paul spends most of the film sitting in front of a computer and being distraught, but he pulls it off perfectly. Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (this was his last role) co-star and are both characteristically excellent.

Fathers and Daughters (2016) 1/5 – This movie is incredibly forgettable, and so is Paul’s role as Bland Supportive Boyfriend. Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried turn in nice performances in this not-particularly-insightful drama about… well, the relationship between a father and daughter.

Triple 9 (2016) 0/5 – This is a brutal, violent film that offers no redemption in the story nor interesting filmmaking on any level. Its great cast is wasted. Paul plays a sensitive criminal whose most interesting trait is his half-shaved head, half mohawk comb-over. Absolutely nothing worth recommending here. 

The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) 3/5 – This movie is bonkers! It’s absolutely nuts! It barely makes sense! Yet that makes it so much better than many of these other films. Paul plays the father of young Louis Drax, who falls off a cliff and into a coma on his ninth birthday. Paul also plays a sea monster. I… really can’t explain it, it has to be seen to be believed. This whimsical, dark children’s-but-is-really-for-adults-movie has a distinct vision. Is it a good vision? Debatable. But it is a wild ride nonetheless. 

Come and Find Me (2016) 0/5 – I despise how boring this movie is! Paul is again miscast playing a boyfriend trying to find his missing girlfriend in this action thriller that has neither good action nor is thrilling. You’ve seen a better version of this movie before.

American Woman (2019) 4/5 – This haunting drama follows the life of Debra (Sienna Miller), a down-on-her-luck working-class woman from a small town whose daughter goes missing. Paul plays her love interest, and while his role is small, gets to do some nice dramatic work. It’s Miller’s movie though, and although the film is a non-stop train to Sad-ville, it’s worth the ride.

The Parts You Lose (2019) 5/5 – Paul plays a nameless fugitive who is hidden and nursed back to health by a deaf child. Paul has a natural chemistry with child actors and he gets to use that here with promising newcomer Danny Murphy. Like in El Camino, he excels at expressing feral energy through a mostly silent role. It’s a perfect use of his talents, while also challenging him, and the whole movie is definitely a worthwhile watch.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) 5/5

This should have won the Emmy this year for Outstanding Television Movie! Vince and Aaron were robbed!

Paul delivers an outstanding performance that stands apart from his previous work as Jesse Pinkman. This Jesse is stripped of all of the things that made him more of a meme than a character (“yeah, science!”) and instead reminds us of the complex path towards salvation the character has been on, and the depth of his desperation when on the cusp of grasping it.

Strangely Specific Tropes in Aaron Paul’s Work

*I’m including here what I saw of his roles in TV shows BoJack Horseman, The Truth Be Told, the first two episodes of The Path, and a shoutout to the movie Smashed, which came out in 2012, which puts it before this scope of this essay.

  • His character is enslaved and gets tortured in the desert- Breaking Bad/El Camino, Exodus: Gods and Kings
  • Scene where his wife follows him in her car because she suspects he’s cheating on her and he goes to a shady motel to meet a mysterious woman: The Path, American Woman
    • Modification: Plays a husband who cheats and leaves his wife because he just can’t cope with the trauma she is undergoing: American Woman, Decoding Annie Parker
  • His character was in a band (but no musical abilities demonstrated) – Breaking Bad, American Woman, A Long Way Down, Decoding Annie Parker
  • Is a construction worker in the South with a spotty accent- American Woman, Hellion 
    • Only southern accent: Triple 9 and The Truth Be Told 
  • Wears a Beanie- The Parts You Lose, A Long Way Down, Breaking Bad/El Camino, BoJack Horseman, Triple 9.  (All these costume designers were like, “his forehead is bigger than our budget, we gotta cover it up!”
  • Interacts with Nazis/White Supremacists or the Mafia: Breaking Bad/El Camino, BoJack Horseman, Come and Find Me, Triple 9, The Truth Be Told
  • Is a junkie or alcoholic- Breaking Bad, BoJack Horseman, Hellion, Triple 9, The Truth Be Told, Smashed
  • I’m a criminal, yo: Breaking Bad, The Parts You Lose, Central Intelligence, Triple 9, Westworld, Need for Speed, The Truth Be Told
  • Does some guttural crying- Breaking Bad/El Camino, A Long Way Down, The Path, Hellion, Come and Find Me, Need for Speed, The Truth Be Told
    • Closeup as he sheds one single tear- El Camino, Need for Speed

So what’s the verdict? Aaron Paul’s filmography is uneven, to say the least, but it has some bright spots, especially as of late. If I were his manager, I would advise him to continue acting (and producing) small indie dramas that play to his strengths, stop doing mid-budget action movies, and try to befriend some prestigious directors (I could see a fit with the likes of Christopher Nolan, Kathryn Bigelow, Gina Prince-Bythewood, even Bong Joon Ho) and start edging back into big films, but not as the lead. He should also continue with prestige television, but use this as an opportunity to try different genres and be more experimental. I think with the right role he could get into better movies (and even win an Oscar one day?) but he needs to choose better projects and filmmakers need to take a chance on him.

As of right now though, Paul seems more focused on building his Dos Hombres Mezcal brand with Bryan Cranston, being a new dad, and taking responsibility for racism. And that’s pretty cool, bitch. 

– Madeleine D.

Dragging The Dead On Leashes: Generational Sin in Netflix’s “Dark”

A guest review by Kevin McGuire

“To a world without Winden”

“Winden won’t give up that easily”

-Ulrich and Hannah, 1986 (Season 1, Episode 3)

Dark’s opening scene takes place thirty-three years after this exchange, where the small town of Winden is as rotten as ever. Jonas Kahnwald has just returned to school following his father’s suicide. The nuclear plant, long a source of civic pride and economic stability, is set to be decommissioned. Half the residents seem to be involved in extramarital affairs. The police department is investigating several cases of missing children. Entire flocks of birds drop dead from the skies with no apparent explanation. Created in 2017 by director Baran bo Odar and writer Jantje Friese, this German Netflix series centers on a handful of local families, and the dark secrets in the town’s past responsible for the current problems. Time travel quickly comes into play, and as various characters attempt to change the past to fix the present, it becomes apparent how deeply the roots of their modern pain lie in their actions and those of their ancestors.

In case you haven’t picked up by now, this is not a happy show. The New York Times described it as “the show for people who thought Stranger Things was just a little too much fun”. Dark is simultaneously a technical and narrative masterpiece and a difficult show to watch. In preparation for writing, Friese read over 100 books on quantum physics, psychology, philosophy, and theology – and it shows. Direct references are made to numerous scientific concepts by name, everyone in-universe is capable of directly quoting both Freud and the book of Psalms, and quotes from a range of continental philosophers provide prologue to many episodes. It is an incredibly dense show, unwilling to leave any scientific or relational worldbuilding unexplored.

Odar’s background as a painter infuses each scene with strikingly intentional composition. The camera is unblinking as the show moves at a slow, almost dreamlike pace, whether capturing sordid affairs, brutal murders, or exposition over the physics of black holes. Indebted to the grand myth building of shows like Lost and Twin Peaks, Dark takes lessons from their oft-criticized lack of payoff. A consistent atmosphere is maintained by a steady drip of the dreadful truth replacing each piece of the central mystery, with the endgame always in sight. The solution to the puzzle is revealed early on, but the journey to that point – and what it can reveal about the human experience – remains the greater story.

A Brand New, Broken World

Dark is, at its core, as much about philosophical conflict as it is time-travel and soapy drama. While questions of time, fate, and causality form the grand theater that the show plays in, the heart of the narrative is much more human. Ultimately, Dark is about the experience of navigating generational sin, how the misdeeds of the past can bring pain and suffering through lasting scars and continuing patterns of destruction. The town of Winden is the entire universe of the show, and the most enduring monument to the crimes committed by generations of inhabitants. Beneath the nuclear plant, a system of caves acts as both the catalyst for time travel and a physical manifestation of the town’s dark underbelly. Occasionally we meet characters who have just moved to Winden, but no one escapes. Midway through season one, Katarina, mother of one of the missing children calls into a radio show, her oracle against Winden playing over scenes of small-town life now seen through a newly darkened lens:

“I want people to completely understand what’s going on here. We’re all so blind about this. There’s a murderer here among us. No one actually dares to say it. But it’s the truth. We’re all clinging to the hope that it won’t happen to us. We all know one another. And we think we know those around us. But do we really? We live right next door to people we know nothing about, and behind one of those doors is my son. It could be anyone’s door. The man behind the cash register. Someone we invite for coffee and cake on Sundays, who plays with our children. But I don’t want to look away anymore. And you shouldn’t want to either. This whole town is sick. Winden is like a festering wound, and all of us are a part of it.”  

The sins of the past directly affect every aspect of life in Winden. Fractured relationships within families echo the abuse and addictions that have haunted them for generations, while externally individuals betray the children of those their parents betrayed. Nothing changes, in pattern or substance, even as one generation replaces the next. Institutions, whether educational, political, or clerical, provide no solace for the residents as they continue to be harnessed for selfish motive just as they have throughout Winden’s history. The thin veneer of camaraderie that unites the town decays on screen as the secrets of the past emerge from whispered rumor into the light, setting neighbor against neighbor, daughter against mother, and father against son. 

Dark illustrates two types of this generational sin, the show proudly wearing its existential heritage on its sleeve. Characters moving through time fall into one of two camps. The first, represented by those like Ulrich, travel to the past in attempts to prevent present tragedies. Upon arrival, they face the realization that generations of misdeeds, both theirs and their ancestors, cannot be erased and inevitably haunt their families’ emotional and physical security. Confronted with this absurd and transcendent reality, they shrink into impotence or madness.

The second is represented by the cult-like secret societies of Sic Mundus and Erit Lux that carry out a war waged beyond time. Their founders began on the same path as the others, but answered the absurd directly. Instead of heroic courage, their actions prove to be the inciting incidents behind much of the horror plaguing their modern world. Generational sin is now cast through the lens of eternal recurrence – essentially the concept that all events in history occur repeatedly, in the same sequence, through a never-ending series of cycles. Dark makes this literal, as all of the travelers find themselves fighting the same tragedies not just at different points of time, but failing again and again to change the past and seeing their family and friends torn apart repeatedly by their actions. Trapped in this unending knot, each character operating outside of their native timeline is faced with the disharmony that arises from the apparent meaninglessness of their existence and the futility of their actions, and together represent three unique philosophical responses.

Heroes of the Absurd

As leader of Sic Mundus (which is short for Sic Mundus creatus est, which means “Thus the world was created” in Latin), Adam represents a war against God and time, viewing both as ultimately non-existent concepts which must be dethroned from the human mind. He adopts the view of eternal recurrence advanced by Friedrich Nietzsche – that only through amor fati (love of fate) can the “horrifying and paralyzing” reality of what will happen be embraced, allowing escape through the “creation of novelty”. Corrupted both physically and spiritually by countless attempts to restore order through time travel (his scars serving to conveniently obscure his identity until late in season two), Adam is the embodiment of the Nietzschean “will to power”. In his eyes, only he is strong enough to bend the universe to his will. Winden is sick, and can only be cured through destruction. In the center of the Sic Mundus lodge hangs Peter Paul Ruben’s The Fall of the Damned, Adam viewing himself as the archangel Michael, casting the damned of Winden into the abyss they deserve. For any innocents in the town, non-existence is a more merciful fate than continuing to live in such a world. Judgement and salvation, carried out in the same motion.

Eva, the leader of the Erit Lux (“There will be light” in Latin), is chiefly opposed to Adam, and seeks a different path. Her encounter with the absurd leads her instead to embrace it. There is a radical value to mere existence, any harm from generational sin largely ignored. Chief among the artifacts adorning Erit Lux’s comparatively barren lodge is a detailed mapping carved into the floor of every individual’s role which must be sustained for the cycle to continue. Eva embraces the absurdism articulated by Albert Camus, presupposing a world in which God is already dead and nothing beyond the immanent matters. To Erit Lux, both history and hope represent false idols doomed to disappoint. In this weary world, nothing is promised beyond today, and even the freedom that comes from everyone’s self-determined path to destruction is preferable to the fantasy of salvation. 

There’s an interesting contrast between the absurdism of Camus and the 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (bear with me for a second). In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus proclaims about the character that “he too concludes all is well”. This is a bitter statement acknowledging that the world has no master, and that Sisyphus must make his own meaning out of the boulder he eternally pushes. ‘All is well’ because nothing can be any different from how it currently stands. These words are a strange echo of Julian of Norwich’s famous recounting of her 13th vision:

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

For Julian, all is not well. But it will be. She doesn’t know how or when or why, but Christ will make all things right, and that is enough for faith. Likewise in Dark, Claudia, the last of three travelers who is outside time, accepts that there might be hope outside the knot in which Winden is stuck. She only arrives at this point through desperation, unwilling to perpetuate the cycle of parents and children wronging one another. The same mechanism which brings suffering into the world is the only way to escape it. 

In The Concept of Anxiety, Søren Kierkegaard writes that anxiety is the amoral tension between all possible actions that predates even the knowledge of good and evil in human consciousness. Anxiety made possible Adam and Eva’s leap into their original sins, yet anxiety also makes Claudia’s leap into a faith in a better world possible. Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard saw the tyranny of fate on human consciousness as a blight to be overcome. However, his solution lay in the ability of anxiety to prepare the human mind for faith “because the anxiety within him has already fashioned fate and has taken away from him absolutely all that any fate could take away”. Claudia’s recognition, that nothing she imagines can be worse than the present cycle imprisoning Winden, provides the catalyst for hope that unhitching from the origin can lead to a better world.

Out of the Caves

Three seasons of wallowing in suffering is draining. There’s a purpose to this pain though, as only in the absence of hope can the vastness of its joy be seen. In a recent interview, artist Elijah Tamu spoke about darkness as being a key to realizing spiritual transcendence, “white light is beautiful, but a world of only white light without differentiation would be no different from a world of darkness… Sometimes darkness is what makes it possible to appreciate and contemplate certain subtleties of light”. For example, the traditional candlelit tenebras service of Good Friday situates the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice alongside both spiritual and physical darkness, making a conscious attempt to draw the modern mundane into viewing a more sacred fullness. Unilluminated by the divine, the inherited suffering of this world can either lead to holding tight to past wrongs and perpetuating injustice on personal and systemic levels, or to redemptive release. 

While Dark cloyingly refuses to acknowledge whether any of the characters truly manage to outwit fate, Odar and Friese make clear that healing of even the deepest hurts begins with the extension of personal grace. Forgiveness of self and others, coupled with sacrifice, literally wipes away any trace of the show’s central sins. The generational patterns are coming undone. The final episode concludes with a dinner party, prior suspicion replaced by true community. As the guests eat by candlelight in a town without power, their final exchange illustrates a place still amid gloom, but no longer hopeless:

Regina: “If the world were to end today, and you only had one wish, what would you wish for?”

Katarina: “A world without Winden. Let’s drink to that.”

All: “A world without Winden.”

[The lights turn back on]

Peter: “Looks like Winden doesn’t want to just disappear.”

Woller: “Maybe it’s for the best.”

~

* “Dragging the Dead on Leashes” is the title of a song by Being As An Ocean

Kevin McGuire is currently a PhD student in the Price College of Business at the University of Oklahoma. In his free time, he enjoys both watching and playing basketball, spending too much time on Twitter, and continuing his quest to find the strangest music on the planet.

Exploring Time in “Tenet” and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

*Spoilers for I’m Thinking of Ending Things

On the first weekend of September, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited Tenet arrived to challenge the pandemic and (hopefully) save movie theaters. Meanwhile, writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things arrived on Netflix. Tenet is a sleek, imaginative, action-packed blockbuster thrill ride that has all of Nolan’s quirks: technical perfection, stiff dialogue, ponderings about reality, and Michael Caine. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is equally full of its director’s quirks: a focus on relationships, abstract, melancholy, arthouse. Both films, outside of their auteur-ness, share something in common: they are both about time, and much can be learned by comparing how the two directors approach their exploration of the subject. 

In Tenet, a character ends her explanation about the central premise of the movie (objects moving through time backward) by saying, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Despite that instruction, Tenet is all about thinking. The entire film is completely plot-driven. Every single line of dialogue is plot-related. Every scene moves forward relentlessly. The momentum of the film is exciting, but there is no room for beauty or feeling. Tenet wants you to think about the possibility of going backward in time and it wants you to experience such a disorienting thrill (sometimes too disorienting, I spent an hour standing outside of the theater after the movie with my companions trying to parse the story out, and I’m still not sure I understand everything). 

Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is all about feeling. There is also a lot of talking, however, it’s less about what is said (which are often long monologues about art) and more about how things are said, or why. By the time the ending rolls around and there’s a ballet dance break and Jesse Plemmons sings an entire song from Oklahoma!, you’re either on board or are probably very annoyed. 

Time is warped in several ways during I’m Thinking of Ending Things. When Lucy (Jessie Buckley) gets to Jake’s (Jesse Plemmons) parents’ house, she and Jake stay the same age, but his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) begin aging backward in forward. Every time Lucy steps into a new room, both parents are at different ages. Later, Lucy notes that instead of people being stationary points that move through time, time moves through people and she watches time move through Jake’s parents. 

The scenes in the car between Jake and Lucy likewise play with continuity and time. Jake calls Lucy by several different names, she talks about being in different occupations, and her story of how she and Jake met changes multiple times. And in the ending sequence, it is revealed that Lucy wasn’t real at all, but that Jake was imagining falling in love. 

Maybe. That might be one possible interpretation. But nothing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things encourages you to “solve” the movie. It is not a logical puzzle, and there’s nothing you gain from being able to pin down the movie’s timeline or narrative tricks. What you need to know about Lucy and Jake, or their feelings and relationship, are all conveyed through the acting and visuals. The confusing, metaphysical nature of the visuals and story are supposed to only teach you one thing about time: it is our absurd enemy. Our perception of time is changed by our emotions, and the only way out is through. 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things treats time as a character within itself, as malleable as any of the other characters. Tenet treats time as a tool to play with. Neither approach- thinking or feeling- are inherently better or worse, of course. Both films have numerous explainer videos and articles on the internet to help people figure the films out, and both films prompt rich discussion through their ambiguous nature. I think, though, that the spectacle of Tenet (the big screen really is the only way to see it) will mean that the film won’t have much longevity. Some of Nolan’s other twisty puzzle-box movies have stood the test of time and remained in the cultural memory- I’m thinking of Inception and Memento– but those had stronger emotional cores than Tenet. Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things will probably also be forgotten, but less because of the film itself and more from how few people will see it and how even less will submit themselves to its oddity. Yet I think that if you do give I’m Thinking of Ending Things a chance and embrace it on its own terms, you will find it worthwhile, even if you don’t enjoy it.

-Madeleine D.

I Don’t Care Whether You Understand My Movies (Anymore)

By Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan's Next Movie is Getting an IMAX Summer 2020 Release |  IndieWire

There was a time in my life in which I believed it mattered whether the miserable cretins who viewed my films understood what was happening. It was a dark time, reader. I struggled mightily to provide the ill-bred masses with the petty satisfactions they required, employing degrading techniques designed to explain my ingenious, chronologically non-linear plots to even the stupidest of dolts who consumed them.

Yes, reader, I engaged in shameful behavior, lowering my films to the tastes of their basest audiences. I used such abominable devices as “exposition” and “audible dialogue.” I even (forgive me) took the time to write coherent and explanatory endings, designed to fill in whatever points audiences may have missed in their feeble understanding of my sweeping artistic vision. NO MORE! My latest magnum opus, Tenet, is free from such demeaning restraints. 

No longer will I task my considerable genius with “accessibility” or “coherence.” My audiences are, plainly, dumb and worthless, and they will henceforth be treated as such. Of course their feeble minds don’t understand my breathtaking reflections on the nature of time itself, so why should I bother debasing my work for their sake? Don’t understand the intricate workings of Tenet’s time mechanics? Imbecile. Here are some buildings blowing up to satisfy your toddler-esque attention span. Unclear on who a particular character is or where they came from? Too bad, now they’re punching somebody else you’ve never seen before, does that satisfy your infantile lizard brain? Confused by the ending? Not my problem, focus on the big, shiny guns I put in just to entertain idiots like you. Enjoy the flashy lights and shut the hell up. This is cinema. There’s no time to accommodate the dimwits who can’t keep up, I’m making art here. If prolonged landscape shots, car chases of ambiguous purpose, and inexplicable gunfire don’t satisfy your shallow cravings for petty entertainment, I have nothing further to say to you. 

Christopher Nolan is a writer and director. His latest film, Tenet, is in theaters now. 

~

This piece of satire was guest-written by Sam Shideler. Sam is a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma, where his academic pursuit are best articulated as “reading, writing, and regarding STEM majors with contempt.” His hobbies include referring to movies as “films,” pretending to understand classical literature, and suffering at the hands of Oklahoma City Thunder basketball.

Indigenous Filmmaking, Satire, and Horror in “Blood Quantum”

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A guest review by John Truden

Editorial Note: Blood Quantum is a 2019 Canadian zombie horror film directed by Jeff Barnaby, a Canadian Mi’kmaq filmmaker. Barnaby’s film is rooted in an Indigenous perspective. It stars Indigenous actors and is a love letter to both classic zombie horror films and to “indignerds,” the self-proclaimed title of Indigenous people who love pop culture. Blood Quantum holds to many of the conventions of the zombie movie genre, along with influence from filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, but its main premise and some of the stylistic choices draw on Jeff Barnaby’s Mi’kmaq context. The following was written by my friend John Truden, who is currently getting his Ph.D. in Indigenous history, to give some context and history, so the film can be more enjoyable and understandable to a non-Indigenous audience. 

Blood Quantum follows the residents of the Red Crow Indian Reservation (a fictional reserve that stands in for many Indigenous communities in North America) who are overtaken by a zombie outbreak. The residents quickly discover that they are immune, but the surrounding white settlers and wildlife are vulnerable to infection.

The 1970 saw the beginning of a renaissance of Indigenous films, or films rooted in the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. That renaissance reached full bloom in the 1990s and has not stopped since. Smoke Signals, a 1998 film that followed the journey of three young people from the Coeur D’alene Reservation in Idaho, became a marker of this growth. Barnaby created Blood Quantum in this context. The film emphasizes community, ties to the land, and grounding in a specific time and place, reflecting precedents set by Indigenous filmmakers.

The film plays with themes of blood and colonialism. It takes the history of settlers who are a threat to Indigenous populations, and puts it within the genre, casting those settlers as zombies who pose the threat to the immune Indigenous population. It’s a theatrical reimagining of very real history (and recent divisions, colonization is not simply a thing of the past). It’s a reversal of what’s called “Settler Colonialism,” a process where people come to a region and re-shape it. In Blood Quantum, instead of settlers coming in and re-shaping the reservation, the Indigenous population is cleansing it. 

Blood quantum itself was a system devised by the United States and Canadian government to slowly eliminate Indigenous populations by essentially assimilating them out of existence. They did this by measuring Indigenous blood and then making it difficult for Indigenous people to marry one another. According to the blood quantum system, if you don’t have a certain amount of Indigenous blood and ancestry you’re not Indigenous, and if you marry a white person, your kid’s blood quantum goes down, making them even more removed from the Indigenous identity. Slowly but surely, entire indigenous bloodlines are erased. The irony of this film then is that these people who are fighting the zombies that have Indigenous ancestry, and that’s what keeps them safe.

The concept of the zombie came to the United States through an effort to explain Haitian independence. In the 1920s the United States occupied the country of Haiti. At this time the United State is in Jim Crow; it’s a white supremacist nation. But in Haiti, the Haitian are resisting and asserting their independence. In order to make sure no Black Americans got any ideas of revolution, journalists and politicians took the Haitian mythology of the zombie and used it to “explain” why the Black people in Haiti are asserting their independence. They depicted Haitians as being brainless and murderous, stupid and violent. This appropriation the zombie erases an important part of Haitian folklore, where the zombie originated somewhere between 1625 to 1800, and “was a projection of the African slaves’ relentless misery and subjugation. Haitian slaves believed that dying would release them back to lan guinée, literally Guinea, or Africa in general, a kind of afterlife where they could be free. Though suicide was common among slaves, those who took their own lives wouldn’t be allowed to return to lan guinée. Instead, they’d be condemned to skulk the Hispaniola plantations for eternity, an undead slave at once denied their own bodies and yet trapped inside them—a soulless zombie” (Mariani). 

In the 1960s, American director George Romero re-used the concept of zombies and turned them into the “undead,” through his films. He turns them into flesh-eating cannibalistic zombies as a stand-in for things. Night of the Living Dead is a critique of American race relations, in a lot of ways. Day of the Dead is a critique of the military-industrial complex. He starts a tradition where the dialogue between the characters is more important than the actual zombies themselves, which is true of this movie. He also sets the precedent of using zombies as other problems. The format is flexible, there’s a lot of different things you can do with a zombie movie. So there is a long canon that Blood Quantum is joining where the zombies stand for thing, usually various social anxieties. Here, the zombies are used to stand in for white settlers, and in this tells a uniquely Indigenous story. 

Blood Quantum is available on Shudder

Sources:

Zombies and Haiti: https://open.spotify.com/episode/0AF1qPSmvhPEjmSE3vEwu7?si=mPNsSf05Qf2kPZeXlSS20A

Mike Mariani: “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies,” for The Atlantic

John Truden is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma. His dissertation explores Indigenous-settler relationships in a settler-dominated Oklahoma. Upon graduation he would like to take on a full-time collaborative role by teaching at a tribal college. In his free time he enjoys historical research, working alongside marginalized communities, and investing in friendships. 

Top 20 Movies of 2020 (So Far)

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Guest Review by Jonathan Dorst

Many movie theaters are reopening today. For how long, nobody knows, but hopefully for good. I last saw a movie in a theater in early March, so I’m ready (I think) to go back to seeing new releases on the big screen. And there are a number of tantalizing films set to come out in the last four-plus months of this year, including The Personal History of David Copperfield (8/28), Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (9/3), Quiet Place Part II (9/4), I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix 9/4), Antebellum (9/18), Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks (October), David Fincher’s Mank (October), Wonder Woman 1984 (10/2), Trial of the Chicago 7 (10/16), Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (10/16?), The Courier (10/16), Black Widow (11/6), Pixar’s Soul (11/20), Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (12/18), Coming 2 America (12/18), and Spielberg’s West Side Story (12/18).

But, if you think there haven’t been any good movies that have been released up to this point in 2020, you haven’t been paying attention. Some came out before the pandemic, some went to streamers or VOD when theaters were not an option, and some were released as planned through a streamer. One note: Although some multi-episode documentaries (like OJ: Made In America) have won Oscars and been considered a ‘feature,’ I chose not to include them on this list, so Tiger King and The Last Dance would be part of a top television list instead. One more note: As always, don’t take the inclusion of a film as a blanket endorsement of its content; you are responsible to research the content and determine if certain movies are appropriate for you.

20. Bad Education– Hugh Jackman shows off his versatility in this telling of a true story of embezzlement in the public school system.

19. Radioactive– A good biopic that makes the interesting decision to show the downside (in jarring flash-forwards) of the protagonist’s historical contribution.

18. Downhill– A not-as-good-as-the-original remake of a very good Danish film, still Will Farrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus give good performances in this serious comedy.

17. The Truth– A bit of a cliched premise about an actress mother and her flawed relationship with her daughter, but it’s Juliette Binoche and Catherine Denueve, so it’s a must see.

16. Tigertail– A thoughtful film that tells the story of an immigrant’s struggle to connect in his new land while reconciling what he’s lost back in his homeland.

15. The Vast of Night– An interesting, slow-burn of a film about strange happenings in the sky in New Mexico in the 50’s that I suspect will get better with repeated viewings.

14. Arkansas– A minor, but enjoyable entry in the ‘loveable loser drug dealer’ genre; Liam Hemsworth is terrific playing against type.

13. The Invisible Man– An effective thriller that is a not-too-subtle metaphor for the psychological oppression that powerful men can administer on women.

12. The Old Guard– A superhero film that takes consequences seriously.

11. Da 5 Bloods– Spike Lee’s exploration of the Vietnam War and its effects, as well as his continued exploration of America’s racial history- the acting is great, but the tone and pacing is all over the place.

10. Young Ahmed– The Dardenne brothers’ latest about a young teenaged boy being influenced by a radical Islamic imam.

9. To the Stars– A movie about small-town Oklahoma in the ‘50s that tells the age-old tale of the shy, bullied kid who gets courage from the extroverted, courageous friend, but with some twists that keep it fresh.

8. Ordinary Love– Two great actors (Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson) telling a slice-of-life story that made me want to watch more of their life together.

7. Palm Springs– A very funny take on the Groundhog Day premise that doesn’t quite earn its happy ending but is still very memorable and enjoyable.

6. Athlete A– The emotional story of how USA Gymnastics failed to protect its female gymnasts from predators like Larry Nassar.

5. The Assistant– A day in the life of an administrative assistant who serves her unnamed boss in a Weinstein-like film production company; we see how powerful men got away with so much for so long as we watch her try to raise a red flag in an atmosphere where no one is motivated to change anything.

4. The Trip To Greece– The 4th film in the ‘Trip’ series, this is the most poignant as Rob and Steve follow in the footsteps of Odysseus and ponder their mortality. 

3. Driveways– A beautiful film about people in different stages of life connecting and making the best of their situation.

2. Sorry We Missed You- British filmmaker Ken Loach has been making great social commentary films for a long time, and this one takes aim at companies taking advantage of workers in this ‘gig economy’ while telling an affecting story of a family trying to thrive, or at least survive.

1. Hamilton– I know this really came out as a musical in 2015, but it’s not the first play to be filmed and released as a movie (consider Bergman’s The Magic Flute and Powell’s The Tales of Hoffman), and everything about this production is just. so. good.

Bonus: Worst Movie of the Year (so far, that I’ve seen)- Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

A Guide to Beyonce’s “Black is King”

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On July 31st, Disney+ released Black is King, a visual album by Beyonce. It functions as a sort of movie-length music video that puts visuals to Beyonce’s 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, which was created by Beyonce for the release of last year’s live-action remake of The Lion King, where she voiced Nala. Black is King follows the storyline of the film abstractly, and there are short audio clips from the film to help move it along. 

Because this is debuting on Disney+, which markets itself as a family-oriented streaming service, and is not a typical film in most regards, I thought it would be helpful to try something different. Instead of a normal review, I’d like to offer some observations and questions that can guide your viewing of Black is King, whether you watched it and would like to learn more about what messages and artistic reference you may have missed, or you’re a parent interested in watching Black is King with your children and would like to cultivate a fruitful discussion of the film (although the film probably won’t interest young children, I’d suggest pre-teen and up). 

As always, this isn’t an endorsement of the film or a suggestion that it is appropriate for all ages and families.

Initial Feelings after Finishing the Film:

  1. How do you feel? Did you like the ending? Were you engaged throughout the movie, or did some parts feel boring?
  2. Did you like it? Give some reasons for why or why not.
  3. Did you like the music? Did it make you want to dance? Do you think it is catchy?
  4. Do you think the visuals matched the music? How so? Did any shot or visual stick out to you as memorable?
  5. There are a lot of spoken-word sections (where Beyonce or others are talking over the music and visuals). Were there any lines that stuck out to you?
  6. Do you imagine visual albums/ feature-length music video films growing in popularity? What are the pros and cons of the medium?

Talking about Race and Black Identity:

1. Black is King was filmed in various African countries. The music is inspired by African music traditions, there are cameos by artists from all over Africa, the costumes were inspired by African fashions, and there are references to various African mythologies and legends. Recognizing, of course, that Africa is not a monolith but is made up of different countries and hundreds of sub-cultures, did the film spark your interest in learning more about Africa, or in any particular parts of African culture?

2. Black is King is explicitly about Black empowerment. It encourages Black people to embrace their heritage, to take pride in their culture and community, and to use their gifts and talents to help build a better future. In a world where Black people are often seen as disposable and are overlooked, Black is King relishes in presenting Blackness as complex, regal, intellectual, spiritual, dynamic, and worthy of respect and attention. Many of the songs are pieces of activism, such as “BROWN SKIN GIRL,” which lovingly reminds Black girls of their beauty, fighting against the very-real stigmas of colorism.

If you are Black, how did Black is King make you feel? (Parents- as with all of these questions, remind your kids that it’s okay to feel ambivalent). Did the film feel relatable, or like Beyonce was talking to you? If you are white or non-Black, how did you feel? Black is King has no prominent white or non-Black characters- was that strange or unusual for you? Did you feel like you learned anything new? Did you feel inspired?

3. In her seminal work Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry makes the argument that “the internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political.” Her argument essentially says that because the perspective of Black women has been silenced for much of American history, and stereotypes about Black women persist so much in popular culture, when a Black woman is at the forefront of a narrative, it is inherently political and even transgressive in white-dominant cultures. First, what do you think about this as a theory? Is it fair? And then second- Is Black is King political? How or how not? Does it feel political?

4. Throughout the album, and especially in the song “MOOD 4 EVA(the song with Jay-Z that takes place in a mansion), Beyonce talks about her wealth and opulence (fairly standard for celebrities). But through this and her other work, she seems to make this statement: Beyonce and Jay-Z, in being successful and rich, and showing that off, is a source of empowerment for all Black people. Because Black Americans are more likely to be of lower-income, it is inherently progressive and even radical to present Black people who are wealthy and successful, because it presents both an idea of what could (and even should) be, and presents a positive representation of the abilities of Black people.  

What do you think of this? Is Beyonce right? Can showing off wealth and opulence be empowering, particularly for minority groups? Is Beyonce and Jay-Z’s (presented) lifestyle aspirational?

Homages and References:

1. Did Black is King help you appreciate The Lion King any more? Were you able to follow the storyline of Simba in Black is King, or was it too abstract? Do you think Black is King could stand alone, without the influence of The Lion King?

2. The opening sequence is a retelling of Exodus 2:1-10, where Moses’s mother puts him in a basket and sends him down the Nile to escape the slaughter of all the Hebrew boys. Moses is a large figure in African American music, especially in gospel songs that were sung by enslaved people to speak about freedom. What might Beyonce be referencing by showing it here? And are there any similarities between Moses and Simba from The Lion King?

3. There is a concept called the “Christ-Like Gaze” in film, outlined by this excellent article. It puts forth the idea that cinematography- the way the camera films subjects- can be used to look at people the way Christ looks at us. The three tenants of a “Christ-like gaze” in a movie is this: 

  1. The film sees people as being complex and filled with inherent worth and dignity. The movie doesn’t watch characters with cynical dispassion. Instead, a Christ-like gaze approaches the characters in warmth. Practically, this means the camera doesn’t objectify characters (such as focusing on body parts for sexual attention). There is often a focus on the facial expressions and eyes of a character. The camera is usually at eye-level with the subject.
  2. A Christ-like gaze means the film isn’t only concerned with the plot. The characters act beyond being used as plot devices. The story- and the camera- pays attention to little details and truths about life. Does the film take time to observe beauty? Are there any moments of quietness?
  3. Movies can (and should) depict suffering honestly, but a Christ-like gaze ends in hope. Hope is not blind optimism, nor is it the removal of consequences. But hope knows that there is a resurrection and healing coming.

So with all of that being said- does Black is King have a Christ-like gaze? Does the camera treat the Black bodies on-screen with care and present them as beautiful? How is the scenery treated? How do the choices in hair and costuming contribute to the presentation of Beyonce and the other stars? Is this an uplifting film, and in what regards?

Further reading:

NPR- “‘Black Is King’ Is A Sumptuous Search For Divine Identity”

Vox- Beyonce presenting herself as African Goddess Osun

The Root: Some of the cameos in Black is King

Vox- Framing Black Bodies as Art in “Apeshit”

            –  Madeleine D.

 

“No Bad Guys”: Clemency

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“It’s my job.”

Chinonye Chukwu’s 2019 film Clemency, starring Alfre Woodard, examines the way this sentiment can be twisted to justify horrific behavior and unjust systems. Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a prison warden who carries out executions. The film begins with a botched execution and follows Bernadine as she moves towards the next one, a highly public case where the man (Aldis Hodge) in question is largely thought to be innocent. As Bernadine faces public and private scrutiny, she continues to figuratively wash her hands of the issue- after all, she’s just doing her job.

It’s fascinating to compare Clemency to another 2019 movie, Just Mercy. There are plenty of differences between them of course- Clemency is fiction, Just Mercy is based on a true story and on the life of still-living attorney and advocate Bryan Stevenson. Clemency takes place in the present, Just Mercy in the past. Just Mercy speaks explicitly on race and interrogates a “justice” system that imprisons black men at a disproportionately high rate. Clemency, which stars a black woman as a warden and a black man as a prisoner, is full of interesting implications, but never explicitly talks about race. Yet they are both about the prison industrial complex, and specifically, capital punishment. Just Mercy is focused on the prisoner- in this case, wrongfully accused Walter McMillian- and his relentless, righteous lawyer Stevenson. In Just Mercy, little time is spent thinking about those working on the side of the system. Particularly since the film is about race and how racism played into McMillians’ wrongful conviction in 1980’s Alabama, there seems to be a clear right and wrong. The prosecutors, the prison guards- all presented as clear-cut representatives of a broken system, who are therefore complicit. 

But we are all complicit in all sorts of injustice. There is corruption and sin in every industry, no matter how seemingly neutral or even moral your job or workplace is. Most of us end up playing a game about the degree of separation; how close am I to the injustice? Surely if, say, I work at a retail store where I know the clothes we make use child labor overseas, I can take comfort in the fact that there is enough separation between me and the CEO or the foreman in the factory allowing that to happen. I’m alleviated of guilt.

Right?

The frustration and helplessness as we come to grips with the reality that everything we touch is stained and contaminated can feel overwhelming, so we dull ourselves to it. We turn a blind eye, we cope, we disassociate, we tell ourselves stories. And it is true, we can’t fix everything. But instead of allowing that to turn us towards lament, we turn to paralysis or detachment. 

Just Mercy is a great movie (and an even better book). But Clemency, the more understated spiritual sibling to Just Mercy, is a critical companion piece to getting a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the justice system and our state-sanctioned executions. Clemency is focused on the other side, those prosecutors and guards, as well as those people’s loved ones, who serve as instruments of the state. It suggests that those who work in the prison system have a form of PTSD and suffer alongside the prisoners in being a part of a system that dehumanizes everyone involved, a system that seems too big and unwieldy to ever fix. The film departs upon the viewer a wariness, a weight that you feel alongside Bernadine. From the nauseating first sequence to the chilling final one, the movie plunges you into the quickly dulling psyche and spirit of Woodard’s Bernadine as she desperately tries to cope and detach from her escalating guilt and ambivalence. 

Alfre Woodard carries the entire film effortlessly. She conveys a multitude of emotions with just a glance or a sigh. She strikes an intimidating figure, making it clear how Bernadine got to the position of warden, but she always leaves a vulnerable underbelly for the audience to see. Woodard is also able to establish, without the script ever drawing direct attention to it, that Bernadine is experiencing clear signs of trauma- nightmares, detachment, hypervigilance and sensitivity, avoidance, numbness. You can see her choosing to deaden her spirit, moment by moment, rather than fully comprehend all of the implications of what her job requires. In the final sequence, we see that spirit leave her altogether. 

“It’s my job” has been a justification for all sorts of horrific evil. But instead of self-righteous indignation towards Bernadine and the work she does, Clemency takes an observational, non-judgmental eye and instead focuses on the effect the work has on her soul. Clemency rises above feeling like an “issue” movie, yet whether it intends to or not, it offers a critical perspective needed for advocacy and greater awareness of the issue of capital punishment and criminal justice reform.  

– Madeleine D. 

P.S- 

I’m from Oklahoma, where we lead the country with the highest incarceration rate and rank #3 in executions. We also have the highest rate of female incarceration, which just keeps growing. If you’re interested in learning more about programs that offer support and counsel to female inmates, I highly recommend reading about the work of (and consider donating to) the following two Tulsa-based nonprofits. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to meet with some of the leadership of both nonprofits and see some of their operations, and I admire the outcome-driven, strategic work they are doing. 

Still She Rises– Provides comprehensive legal representation to indigent women in the criminal and civil legal system.

Women in Recovery – Intensive outpatient alternative for eligible women facing long prison sentences for non-violent drug-related offenses. The 18-month program focuses on each client’s holistic needs, including rehabilitation, therapy, legal counsel, family reunification, and job training/workplace readiness.

Thanks, I Hate It!: Exodus: Gods and Kings

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In her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, famed writer Madeleine L’Engle argues that “art that isn’t good is, by definition, not Christian art, while on the other hand art that’s good, true, and beautiful is Christian art, no matter what the artist believes.”* 

By that definition, Ridley Scott’s 2014 Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings is not Christian. It is also not art. 

As a Christian who loves movies, my relationship with “faith-based films” or movies based on Biblical stories is personal and sometimes more fraught. There is great variation in how Christians approach and view movies and culture, and lots of literature written on the subject of whether Biblical films should even be made. I’m not here to discuss those questions. Instead, I want to look at how definitely not to make a Biblical film, using this one as a case study.

Personally, I do not think that filmmakers who make movies based on the Bible are chained to the source material and must be completely faithful to it, nor do I think the filmmaker needs to be a Christian (see Darren Aronofsky’s excellent Noah). My only requirements are the following:

Madeleine’s Four Commandments for Biblical Movies

  1. Thou shalt have a basic respect for the material (this doesn’t mean you have to believe the Bible, but in the case of this movie about Moses, you do have to recognize the Torah – the Pentateuch/first five books of the Old Testament- is a foundational text for three major world religions, and is the most studied and influential document in history).
  2. Thou shalt make an effort to understand the context of the story, both historical and theological (again, you don’t have to ultimately stay faithful to it, but if you deviate, you need to have a purpose and reason). 
  3. Thou shalt have something interesting to say (don’t waste 200 million dollars and two hours of my time!).
  4. Thou shalt make a good movie (be well-made on a technical level, a tight script, dynamic performances, a memorable score, CGI that has been fully rendered, etc…).

Exodus: Gods and Kings violates all of those commandments. Egregiously. 

Exodus bombed at the box office and was critically panned, but its trouble began long before that, when its all-white main cast was introduced. Having more ethnically-appropriate actors wouldn’t have been able to salvage the script, but it certainly would have cut down on a lot of the *yikes* moments of racism. The casting choices become even more ridiculous once you see the film because none of these actors are 1) box office draws, which was the justification for casting them, and 2) good in these roles. Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, and John Turturro barely register. Joel Edgerton as Ramses… tries, I’ll give him that. Aaron Paul also tries as Joshua in an absolutely thankless, mostly silent role, although the silence may be for the best, considering the British accent he attempts. I think the emphasis on Joshua means they genuinely thought they were going to get a sequel, which is actually a shame because I, for one, would have loved to see El Camino 2 Canaan. 

Outside of the acting and racism, though, the movie’s biggest problems boil down to the characterization of Moses, which violates every single one of my commandments. Moses is one of the most complicated, fleshed-out characters of the Bible, and this movie is a blatant bastardization of him (and how do you make Chrisian Bale boring?!). 

Who is Moses in the Bible? Moses is saved by his mother from the slaughtering of the Hebrew boys. He grows up in the Pharaoh’s household. He murders an Egyptian and flees to Midian. He encounters God in the form of the burning bush and is commanded by Him to go to the Pharaoh and bring the Isrealites out of Egypt. Moses has the gall to tell God that he can’t because people won’t believe him and because he’s a bad speaker, so God allows him to take his brother Aaron with him to do the speaking and give him the power to perform three miracles (Aaron and the miracles are not in the movie). Moses and Aaron go, Pharaoh says no, God sends the plagues, and that convinces Pharaoh. Moses leads the Isrealites out of Egypt, and he communes with God on Mount Sinai and delivers the moral law. 

Moses is not a charismatic speaker; his anger causes him to murder people and later keeps him from getting into the promised land. He is the bringer of the law and a great prophet, yet he often acts cowardly and with a lack of zeal for God’s covenants, such as when he refuses to circumcise his own son (Exodus 4:24-26). In other words: Moses is full of messy contradictions! He’s weak! And that’s why God chose him, because God would be glorified through choosing someone so weak. That’s what God does in the Bible. He makes a group of slaves His chosen people. He chooses leaders who are wretched sinners and calls them men after his own heart. He redeems shameful bloodlines and incarnated as a poor man in a backwater town so that he could live a difficult life and then die like a criminal in a dump to save the lives of those who killed him. God loves failures and underdogs; that’s why he chose Moses. 

Who is Moses in Exodus: Gods and King? A dope military leader. That’s his number one qualification according to this film. God/Malak calls him “General.” Our opening scene of Moses is him winning a battle. He trains the Israelites on how to build weapons and fight like he’s Harry Potter forming Dumbledore’s Army. Here, God chose Moses because Moses was a fighter, and Moses uses his tactical skills to free the Isrealites. 

All of this can be encapsulated in a symbolic moment near the end of the film. The Isrealites arrive at the Red Sea. Moses hears that Ramses is pursuing them. He gets mad (something actually in-character!) and throws the sword his Egyptian dad, John Turturro, gave him into the sea. A few minutes later, the sword floats to the top. Moses goes out and grabs it like he’s King Arthur. Suddenly, he has the “faith” to part the Red Sea and defeat Ramses. 

In the Bible, Moses carries not a sword, but a staff, a symbol of a shepherd (foreshadowing of Jesus!) that turns into a snake (symbolism!). The staff represents everything a sword does not. The staff is a sign of gentle leadership, the nurturing care of a lowly shepherd. It is God that can change the staff into a snake, a reminder of Moses and the Isrealite’s dependency on him (and later, the snake becomes a symbol of their sin). Meanwhile, a sword is a symbol of destructive power, of self-sufficiency and independence, and of macho-leadership. It is a symbol of individualism, which pairs well with what the film offers as the thesis statement when Moses tells his wife that, instead of God, “isn’t it enough that we believe in ourselves?” Sorry, I didn’t realize that in Exodus 20:2 God actually says “Moses is the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because I was too busy or something.” (Oh, wait, that’s not what it says….)

Thanks, I hate it! 

Centering Moses as the “chosen one” hero means that there is suspiciously little God in a story about God. When God does appear in Exodus though, he appears in the form of an eleven-year-old-British boy, said to be a “messenger,” formally credited as Malak (Isaac Andrews). The idea here is that God acts like an emotional, entitled child who plays with people’s lives on a whim. The decision to portray God this way is the most forthcoming choice the film makes, and if it were executed correctly, is one I could begrudgingly respect, because it fulfills my commandment #3. But it isn’t executed correctly, and instead reveals the poor quality of the screenplay.

Near the end of the film, Moses has a conversation with “God”/Malak** where Moses is etching the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets and they say this:

Malak: What do you think of this [the commandments]?

Moses: I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t agree.

Malak: That’s true. I’ve noticed that about you. You don’t always agree with me… Yet here we are, still speaking. 

This scene is the primary problem with the film’s depiction of God. One of the most compelling aspects of the Moses story is the relationship between God and Moses. Moses argues with God. He negotiates with him, gets angry, tries to give up, and is constantly challenging God. Ridley Scott seems to understand this, so there are aspects of that relationship here. In the film, Moses quarrels with God/Malak. But why does Moses fight with God? Because Moses knows God is God, the ultimate, all-powerful authority in the situation. Moses negotiates with God because he knows God is the deciding vote, the one who will make things happen. Moses knows he himself is powerless, that’s why he makes appeals to God. His relationship to God is based on God’s mercy and sovereignty. 

Moses wouldn’t be negotiating and arguing and wrestling and having a relationship with God if he didn’t believe God was who He says He is, the omnipotent, omniscient, all-powerful I Am. If Moses thought he himself was the savior of the Israelites, and God was either not critical or a lesser-power, then Moses wouldn’t have to engage God at all. 

 But this line- “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t agree” portrays Moses as having some kind of equal say in God’s plans, in his moral law, as if God asked Moses, “Hey, do you think the world would work best if people didn’t commit adultery? I know that I’m the one who created the entire universe and formed every single person in their mother’s womb, but I figured you might have some insight that I just don’t have, bro.” It goes back to the rugged individualism the sword symbolizes, and how the film subscribes to the Great Man Theory of history, with Moses being the “chosen one” leader. 

But you can’t have it both ways! Either God is the Great Man of History, the hero of the story, and Moses engages him because Moses is simply a part of God’s plan, or Moses is the Great Man of History, who doesn’t have to. Either Moses wrestles with God because he knows God is God, or he doesn’t, because God isn’t who He says He is. Exodus: Gods and Kings wants it both ways. One minute Moses is coming fearfully before God to plead on his people’s behalf, and recognizing that it is God who is in control here, and the next minute, Moses is being portrayed as the real power behind the plagues and the leader of the Isrealites, and God is some kind of annoying-but-supportive background character. 

This flimsy marriage of the two positions- most likely in an attempt not to offend anyone too much- makes the film’s portrayal of God and Moses uneven and muddled, making it impossible for Scott to present any original ideas on the story. If Scott wanted to make a movie where Moses is the hero and God is some back-up hype man, fine, he should have done it with hubris and gusto. But instead he falters, and paired with a boring reinterpretation of Moses as every-action-movie-hero-ever, Exodus ends up a dull, uninspired film that is a waste of time for those who want to gain a new perspective on Exodus or those who want to enjoy two and a half hours.

If you want to learn about the Moses story, watch this short musical recap that is more entertaining than the entire film. And if you want to watch a good Bible movie that is also just a good movie, watch Prince of Egypt instead.

-Madeleine D. 

* (From Adorning the Dark, by Andrew Peterson, page 84)

**If you watch the scene on Youtube through the link, you’ll see that near the end of the clip, Moses touches the Ark of the Covenant. Not to get too nitpicky, but “don’t touch the ark” is Old Testament 101. This film is very, very concerned with giving scientific explanations for the plagues and for the parting of the Red Sea (which I actually thought were interesting, I don’t see any reason that God wouldn’t use the natural laws he established) but apparently Scott and Co. didn’t put as much research into these other parts of the movie. Uzzah is rolling in his grave.